Sixth-year senior linebacker Jonathan Sutherland hasn’t become a superstar at Penn State.
The Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, native hasn’t been an All-American, an All-Big Ten performer or a regular starter in his college football career.
But you better believe he’s made his mark on the program, and a quote from safety Ji’Ayir Brown after this spring’s Blue-White Game illustrates that.
“This guy is perfection, man,” Brown, a fifth-year senior, said, “even though perfection is hard to come by. I still learn from Jon. I still pick Jon’s brain on stuff that he excels in and that I might struggle in. Jon has been tremendous for me, the team and Penn State football.”
More than three months later, Sutherland offered a just about perfect response when asked about Brown’s kind words.
Rather than toot his own horn, Sutherland focused on praising his teammate.
“Ji’Ayir’s the man,” Sutherland told Nittany Sports Now at Penn State’s media day Saturday, Aug.6. “He’s the man, and that’s my brother. We’ve been through thick and thin, so it means a lot coming from such a caliber player and man that he is.”
To have a freshman or sophomore player sing the praises of a veteran would be meaningful.
But for a veteran like Brown- who has developed into a leader on Penn State’s defense and could well be the unit’s best player- to be so complimentary is telling of what Sutherland means to Penn State.
One of Penn State’s younger players, sophomore safety Jaylen Reed, agreed with Brown’s “perfection” description.
“You don’t really know a lot of dudes coming into practice 45 minutes early, getting ready to get a stretch,” Reed said at Penn State’s second-year player availability back in May. “He perfects everything he does. In the classroom, he has his degree, all of that. I look up to him as a big brother.”
Only two players in program history have been named team captain at Penn State three times, and both are on the current roster.
Sean Clifford is one of them.
He’s a multi-year starting quarterback, so no surprise there.
The other is Sutherland, who has been a reserve defensive back for most of his time at Penn State.
A little more surprising.
Sutherland’s time at Penn State has been rewarding but hasn’t always been easy.
After the third game of his third season overall and first as team captain, Sutherland received a racially insensitive letter.
The past two years, he and his teammates have had far more bleak Saturdays than they would like, winning as many games as they’ve lost.
In 2020, Sutherland was part of Penn State’s first losing team since 2004.
The following season, the squad started 5-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country, and finished 7-6 and unranked.
A lot has changed from when Penn State named Sutherland a captain before the 2019 season till now.
But Sutherland’s leadership has been a constant, and although this will almost certainly be his last ride with Penn State, he’s not changing his approach going into year six.
“I’ve went about my preparation the same as every other year,” Sutherland said. “I’m just being completely honest. I know it is my last year. The way I approached the winter, spring and summer and going into training camp has been the same. That’s just trying to be a guy who shows up every day with the right mindset and tries to push my teammates and just get the best out of them as well as myself.”
Although Sutherland has been a constant, his role with the team has shifted.
Sutherland has officially completed the transition from safety to linebacker, a move he said began during last year’s training camp.
He started two games at the position last season, both in emergencies.
Against Rutgers, Sutherland started at linebacker when many Nittany Lions were out with a campus-wide sickness.
Then, after Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa opted out of last year’s Outback Bowl against Arkansas, Penn State needed help and called on Sutherland to provide it.
This season, he’s officially a linebacker on the depth chart and is expected to start at the SAM position.
So although Sutherland is one of Penn State’s most experienced players, he’s also in transition.
He feels he’s been handling that transition well.
“I think I had a strong spring,” he said. “I think that the coaches have placed me in a position where I can excel and play to my strengths.”
It’s not easy for a sixth-year senior to balance leading younger players while going through a full-time position change.
Sutherland is part of a linebacking corps that only returns one starter— Curtis Jacobs— and is helping lead young players like true freshmen Keon Wylie and Abdul Carter, as well as slightly older players like Kobe King and Tyler Elsdon, who have some experience but haven’t been regular college starters yet.
Although Sutherland is relatively new to the linebacker position at the college level, he feels he needs to have enough knowledge to teach.
“I have to know my stuff because a lot of young guys are going to be asking me questions,” Sutherland said, “that’s why I take pride in my preparation that I was talking about before, watching extra film, reading my notes, asking questions.”
Although Sutherland plays a different position now, for Reed, Sutherland’s presence still impacts his old position room, as well as the rest of the team.
“He comes in early to every workout,” Reed said in May. “He’s always on time. He’s a person I want my little brother to look up to.”
Penn State hasn’t yet named its captains for the 2022 season, but it’s a good bet that Sutherland and Clifford will be the first two four-time captains in school history.
Another captaincy would humble Sutherland.
“It’d be an honor,” he said. “Just being named the captain from your teammates and your coaches, especially at a place like Penn State, it’s an honor. I’m very grateful for the three years that I was able to serve as captain here.”